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Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam Paperback – March 10, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 252 pages
  • Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press; New edition edition (March 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1558494421
  • ISBN-13: 978-1558494428
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,022,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's a pleasure when a new writer has something to say and says it well. Former army nurse O'Neill's debut story collection captures the physical and psychological tensions of her 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam with refreshing maturity and a profound sense of compassion. The title, she explains in her penetratingly honest introduction, is "an all-purpose underdog rallying cry a sarcastic admixture of `cool,' comedy, irony, agony, bitterness, frustration, resignation, and despair." It addresses the need of the Americans in Vietnam to harden themselves while maintaining their humanity a battle that often seems as unwinnable as the war. O'Neill presents a portrait gallery of nurses, soldiers, and natives, grouped into three sections reflecting the three hospitals where she worked. In "The Boy from Montana," a veteran nurse recalls a casualty of war along with her na‹ve assumptions about medical conditions under fire; "Butch" details the attachment an American soldier forges with a little Vietnamese boy. "Monkey on Our Backs" follows a nurse's efforts to rid the world of her commanding officer's annoying pet, and features a bizarrely funny confession and some unexpected entrepreneurial ingenuity. In another darkly humorous tale, "Commendation," an archetypal schemer named Scully provides a cynic's guide to bureaucratic logic. While many of the images Bob Hope's USO show, the secret war in Cambodia, the music of the times are familiar, they are made fresh through the nurse's viewpoint. O'Neill's stories are both entertaining and thought-provoking, especially when she depicts feigned indifference to all kinds of pain. Focused and sympathetic, this is a valuable contribution to the mostly macho literature of Vietnam. Agent, Nat Sobel. 5-city author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-O'Neill served as an operating-room nurse in Vietnam from the spring of 1969 till early summer 1970. At the time, her anger and the need to forget kept her from writing about her experience. Now in middle age, she has the perspective to see the situation more clearly and offers a stark, often darkly humorous picture of her Vietnam War. Her stories are fictional accounts of her recollections from three very different hospitals in which she served. O'Neill reminds readers that while soldiers suffered the guilt of killing, the nurses felt the pangs of survivor's guilt. They faced dying and maimed soldiers, many of them in their teens, as well as Vietnamese men, women, and children caught in the war's destruction. Possibly most complex of all, as the only females in a world of battle-charged young men, they faced unrelenting, strident cravings for sex from the men with whom they served. Some women were used, abused, and even raped. These stories offer snapshots in the lives of a series of characters facing war's bloody results and dealing with it as they can-through drugs, through sex, through flaunting the rules, or even by putting a hit contract out on a monkey. Most of the players are barely beyond their teens and their attitudes and actions will strike a chord with most young adults. This is a fascinating glimpse of the Vietnam War from a very different perspective.
Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

I was born in Indiana when dinosaurs walked the earth. In those ancient times, it was not uncommon for young lower-middle-class women to be told that they should either learn to type or study to be a nurse. I did both.

So eager was I to leave the flatlands and travel the world, that I believed an Army recruiter who told me he could snag me a hitch in Hawaii or Germany or, at the very least, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, if I just signed this little paper.

Alas, it was a pack of damned lies.

I was walking primly down the aisle of my nursing school's chapel, white cap on my head and spanking new diploma in my hot little hand, when Hey, Presto! The military snatched me up, cross-dressed me, and shipped me off to Viet Nam.

In that strange, backward, put-upon country, I spent a year and a month covered in blood and amorous men. I ultimately married one of the latter. Many, many, many years later, I still can't get rid of the silly man.

Life got complicated, as life always does. I earned a BA in journalism over 16 years while birthing and raising three kids, spending a year in the Peace Corps, working as an RN, writing for local newspapers, volunteer-coordinating just about anything volunteer-coordinate-able, singing in dives, telling children's stories, and moving eight or nine times to keep up with my husband's career.

Then, at last, we landed in a town near Boston and stayed for 25 years. This gave me time, between working and mothering, to sit at the computer. I churned up a pile of reject slips and one major acceptance: A collection of short stories about medical types in combat hospitals. It's called 'Don't Mean Nothing,' and it was originally published in 2001 by Ballantine Books, a month after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Like everything published at that troubled time, it went nowhere.

Except...my intrepid agent Nat Sobel managed to sell it to Black Swan books in the UK. Where it went nowhere.

I nagged my team at Ballantine to sell the paperback rights for educational purposes. They did; UMass Press bought them at almost the exact time that Ballantine/Random House downsized my team out of existence.

In time, I got those rights back, and a small press in NJ, Serving House Books, put out a new, expanded edition--two more stories--and electronic versions. It's still for sale through Serving House, and you can now buy it for Kindle, Nook, and a number of other popular ebooks.

Buy it here. Enjoy it. But be aware that, like all fiction, Don't Mean Nothing is a pack of damned lies.


We are now well-launched into the 21st Century. The kids have flown, and that aforementioned husband and I have retired to Brooklyn. HE has retired, that is; I still hunker down with my computer. I have helped edit books, and I put out blog essays now and then, thanks to that year so long ago that we spent in the Peace Corps, on a site called Peace Corps Worldwide--http://peacecorpsworldwide.org . I recently gathered up and polished a number of non-fiction pieces--from this and an earlier blog, as well as a few obscure literary magazines--into a collection called 'Calling New Delhi for Free, [and other ephemeral truths of the 21st Century].' The Peace Corps Writers imprint graciously put it into print (and, soon, into several popular electronic formats).

Calling New Delhi's essays are linked loosely to the theme of Technology, and what it does to us poor, clueless mortals. You do not have to embrace--or even like--Technology to enjoy the book. The pieces are short and mostly humorous, and...well, you can read about it on the book page itself. Or find a sample on my home page, http://susanoneill.us .

It is--surprise!--a pack of damned truths.


Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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I was sorry when the book ended.
Beverly Jackson
The stories benefit from both a common thread and great variety, and the overall effect, with recurring characters, is a bit like reading an episodic novel.
Bruce H. Rogers
My favourite story from the collection was 'Prometheus Burned'.
Edward Wilson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By S. Annand on April 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Susan O'Neill wrote this collection of stories long after her tour in Vietnam. The author served in Vietnam as a nurse from 1969-70. Since I met her at a book reading at the Library of Congress, I got the straight dope on this book.
O'Neill decided to write a collection of stories similar to Tim O'Brien. It would be a collection of different stories that would reflect her tour, written chronologically. What is rather clever is that the author broke the book down into three parts. Each part regards where she served: Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Cu Chi.
The fact is these stories just can't be faked. The first story,"The Boy From Montana," is basically an initiation. You learn the reason not to get too close to wounded soldiers. Just how do you cope, as a nurse, with seeing young men die every day? In this story, there was no conversation per se, as the wounded man made only one reply to a question. If you take this story in combination with "Prometheus Burned," you really understand the psychological pain nurses suffered by having the soldiers die literally in their arms.
The fun part was the recurring character of SP4 Scully, the devious company clerk. The protaganist, in "The Exorcism," is harassed by a ghost. The author takes you back to Vietnam with her ridiculous discussions with the young female Catholic Vietnamese girl who tries to help her get rid of the ghost. Only Scully can swing the deal--at the cost of her prized pizza mixes. Scully surfaces a couple of more times but the end, when he gives her a "big hand" for her tour, is priceless.
Other reviewers have written about the monkey, starting in "Monkey on our Backs." These things really were a menace.
Read more ›
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mary Reynolds Powell on October 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Susan O'Neill does a masterful job of capturing the feelings we nurses worked hard to suppress in Vietnam. Like Tim O'Brien, she does it with pure poetry. It's the closest anyone has come to conveying the gut feeling of being at a hospital in-country.Thank you, Sue!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Moray on January 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
"Don't Mean Nothing" is a wonderful book. Susan O'Neill has a rare ability to bring the reader's heart to their throat just when she's lowered their defences with a good laugh. The book is full of laughter - and tears. There's the breathtaking "The Boy from Montana," a young nurse's first operating room experience, and the beautiful, moving "One Positive Thing," about a nurse's ambivalence over her unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Every person who went to Vietnam came back changed, and every story in this book shows us how. These are compelling stories, and I recommend them highly.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Richard Lewis on April 19, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I live in Indonesia (where I grew up), and do most of my reading during fairly frequent and extended surf safaris on boats. I ordered DON'T MEAN NOTHING from Amazon, and when it arrived, I read the first couple stories and then forced myself to put the book away, saving it for precious boat-time reading material. I just got back from my latest trip, and I tell you, I read two stories a day, taking them like a illicit drug. And like an addict, when the book came to end, I was severely wishing there were another dozen to read.
Anybody who's reading this review already knows the collection is set in Vietnam during the war, told from the original perspective of medical personnel working with war casualties. But as with all great stories-or at least, the kind of stories I really love-the authentic and intriguing details of setting and scene only serve to enhance the characters, and it was this assemble of ordinary folk (acting pretty much as ordinary folk would in extraordinary situations) that made the collection such a riveting read for me. The story "Butch" made me-macho surfer dude--misty-eyed, and "Monkey on Our Banks" made me laugh out loud, because I knew a monkey just like that one in my boarding school (it once stole and ate a bunch of candy laxative, with predictable results in the girls' dorm).
As an oftentimes struggling and paper-ripping writer, I marveled at author O'Neill's way with words that don't get in the way yet do immaculate service to the story. But mostly, I so enjoyed the reading that my inner critic never made a peep.
Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Edward Wilson on April 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This collection of fiction shows that Susan O'Neill is a talented writer first and foremost - and not just a woman veteran of Vietnam. O'Neill's stories capture the very essence, the distorted waking dream quality of the Vietnam War. The stories are like the discrete vignettes of a Hieronymous Bosch painting: in one corner a sadistic doctor is torturing a wounded North Vietnamese by giving him insufficient anaesthetic during surgery, in another corner a major's pet monkey is trashing an operating room, further on a Vietnamese ghost squats on an abandoned grave mound next to the mess hall, meanwhile Bob Hope strides the Xmas show stage swinging a golf club. O'Neill encapsulates the haunting horrible aesthetic of Vietnam with more deftness and subtlety than any writer so far. For this reason, the stories gain from repeat readings. O'Neill always treats this war, tragic because of its pointlessness, with seriousness and dignity. My favourite story from the collection was 'Prometheus Burned'. O'Neill's Prometheus is a former pre-med student who is educated enough to understand, not only the Prometheus pun, but also the fact that he is dying from third degree burns. Susan O'Neill's stories are for thoughtful grown-ups, not gung-ho flag wavers. At best, they will turn the latter into the former.
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